Review: Lessons in Chemistry ******

 

ATTENTION MIT WOMEN WHO READ THIS COLUMN: READ THIS REVIEW

The stars next to the title are not a typo. It’s a six-star rating. This novel is one of the best I have ever read. It is vivid, well written, and has one of the finest and most satisfying endings ever. I’m so glad I didn’t read the end first, as I often do with novels. Lessons in Chemistry describes the travails faced by intelligent women in American during the 50s and 60s, in academia and at work.

Every type of torture of the intelligent woman that is described in this book is familiar to me, as a second-wave feminist. I could (but won’t) name women I know upon whom each of these indignities were visited, at MIT and life. Proud to say I never committed the worst of these crimes against women, and seldom committed the least of them.

And yet, it’s not a polemic. It’s a clever, witty book that includes passionate love and steadfast adherence to principals. And a few out-loud laughs. And enough metaphors to float a section of English Lit.

When I finished, I instantly Googled the author, Bonnie Garmus, so I could read her other works. Imagine my surprise to find that this is her debut novel. I am hoping and praying for more from her.


Book Review: The Book of Lost Friends ******

That’s not a typo; it is six stars, because that’s how good I think this book is. I admit, I am at the absolute heart of the demographic for a book about a middle-school history teacher, having been one myself.

But I am also an avid reader, and rarely have I been so moved and fascinated by a work of fiction. I was crying, I was apprehensive. Pinpoint plotting, masterful dialog, and a style that is as engaging as anything I have ever seen. This dual story, of the teacher and a freed slave from a century earlier will enthrall you; in fact, it’s like the BBC: it informs, educates and entertains.


Book: American Dirt *****

As I enter my 65th year as a reader (I started young), I look back on hundreds of novels (most of them sci-fi and humor) and can’t think of one that was more moving and compelling than Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt, the story of a woman’s desperate attempt to reach the United States after she gets crosswise with a Mexican cartel. I was literally in tears by the time I read the epilogue. It is compelling, well-written and moving. I had difficulty putting it down. In a way, it reminds me of one of the earliest novels I read, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about conditions in the meat-packing business (of which he famously said, “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”) Sinclair’s social problem novel resulted in regulation of the food business. Novels, by personalizing social problems, are, I suspect, more effective than treatises. Let’s hope that Mexican immigrants received better treatment from government and citizens alike as a result of this dramatic tale, just as Cummins intended.


Why Buddhism is True

Kevin Sullivan suggested Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by journalist Robert Wright. It is an amazing and impressive work, using evolutionary biology to demonstrate the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings about not-self and meditation. My favorite quotes:

“It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker).”

“You may find it useful to think of meditation as a process that takes a conscious mind that gets to do a little nudging and turns it into something that can do a lot of nudging—maybe even turns it into something more like a president than a speaker of the House.”


Book Review: Into the Magic Shop *****

(this ties in with the lead item, Compassion Changed Me)

Doty MD, James R.: Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart

Once in a while, you read a book you know is life-changing―for others, if not for you. Two years ago, this book would have changed my life. After my spiritual journey of 2020, it’s just reinforcement for me, but it might be more for you.

I agree with the Dalai Lama, this is a remarkable and compelling book. It is similar (in a good way) to Dan Millman’s The Way Of The Peaceful Warrior, as it tells the story of a young man meeting an unlikely teacher and learning life-changing lessons―in this case about meditation and visualization. It should be given to every 12-year-old in the world. My grandson will get it when he’s ready to understand it, although I hope and pray he will already know about meditation and visualization by the time he is that old.

(I am shocked to find I never recommended Peaceful Warrior before: read the book or watch the movie.)

The two best quotes from the Magic Shop: “...when our heart changes, everything changes. And that change is not only in how we see the world, but in how the world sees us.”

And, “It's the same with wounds in our heart. We need to give them our attention so that they can heal. Otherwise, the wound continues to cause us pain. Sometimes for a very long time. We are all going to get hurt. That's just the way it is. But here's the trick about the things that hurt us and cause us pain―they also serve an amazing purpose... We grow through pain.”

Amen. I know every word of this paragraph is true because I discovered that you can heal a wounded heart―even after four decades―if you pay attention to the wound.

Doty also writes for the Huntington Post. I highly recommend On Grudges and Forgiveness: These studies show us the cost of not forgiving others can be physically taxing on us. I know this from personal experience as well.

And the most amazing thing  he discusses is the Heart Brain, noting the scientific fact that the  heart sends more messages to the brain than the brain does to the heart. Could the ancients have been right about this one? Check out some interesting heart intelligence science.


Review: Rodham *****

As my daughter Rae put it: “Hillary Clinton Fan Fiction.” A remarkable piece of counter-factual fiction, Rodham explores what would have become of Hillary Clinton’s life if she hadn’t married Bill. Curtis Sittenfeld does an impressive job, mixing fact with fiction and writing romantic scenes I found chilling in their accurate portrayal of what love is like. Bill is so tangential that the “reveal” of his status as a tech billionaire comes in a two-word aside (although he does run for president too―against Hillary. And loses). This is Hillary’s story, stem to stern. Well-written, well-plotted, well-conceived and well executed. The fictional timeline of the American presidency is worth the price of admission by itself. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it brought me to tears and took my breath away.

There is, as I have previously noted, one clearly erroneous conversation in Rodham.


Good Book, Bad Quote 

I am about ¼th of the way through Rodham: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld. It is a remarkable piece of counter-factual fiction; what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? So far, it is an excellent book, and I am leaning towards a five-star review. I thought Curtis was a guy, which made the way he wrote about first love and physical contact astounding and impressive. Turns out Curtis is a gal, which may explain her exquisite and moving descriptions of Hillary’s thoughts and reactions as she meets Bill. I wish I could write as well as her.

Nevertheless, the author is, in my opinion, massively wrong in this passage:

―――begin quote――――

   “I don’t know if this sounds pathetic or conceited,” I [Hillary] said. “But I always hoped a man would fall in love with me for my brain.”

   Again, Phyllis and Nancy exchanged a glance. Phyllis’s voice was kind as she said, “Hillary, no man falls in love with a woman’s brain.”

――――-end quote―――

Wrong, wrong, wrong. As a proud sapiosexual, who has informed all my lovers that it was their mind I fell in love with, I can firmly state that Phyllis was incorrect.


Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

I was not expecting to be impressed by this book, merely entertained. I don’t remember who or what led me to it, but I’m glad I read it. It is sweet and wonderful. Cheryl Stayed was the writer of an advice column called “Dear Sugar,” and the book is a reprint of her advice. In general, I am a sucker for column collections, but this one more so than usual.

Unlike some advice columnists, she gives consistent advice, and, in my opinion, excellent advice. Two of my favorite nuggets from the book:

“You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions.  Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

Also this: “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough...”


Me as a Reviewer

A quick glance at the sidebar (all the stuff that runs down the right-hand side of the column) will show you a bunch of books with five-star reviews. Partly, this stems from the fact that I don’t review books I disklike because I don’t have to. In addition, I have a very good network, and most of what gets recommended to me is extraordinary and therefor deserves a five-star review.

Those of you who know me, going as far back as college, have been known to say, “Did you ever see a movie or read a book you didn’t like?” Well, yes, now and then. And I do appreciate the fun of a negative review; they are more fun than positive reviews. But mostly I only talk/write about the ones I like—and, yes, I know some of you think my standards are set a tad too low.

For years, I carried the best-ever negative review in my pocket; now I just keep it on the Internet where I can easily get at it:

————-

New York Times, Oct. 19, 1971

A review by Clive Barnes

Drat!

Toby "Fred" Bluth, director

What I disliked most about the show—apart from its book, lyrics, music, scenery, costumes, lighting, staging and acting—was its extraordinarily fetid air of innuendo.

———————————

I can honestly say I have never disliked anything that much, but that I almost wish I had.


This and That

Pet Peeve: Journalistic Innumeracy

Please, report health numbers on a per 100,000 basis. Raw numbers are virtually meaningless and of course certainly misleading. (As meaningless as comparing uninflated historic money amounts). Of course California, Texas and Florida have high numbers!!! They are the biggest states.  This is an extension of the general innumeracy of journalists, of which I was proud (as an MIT grad) not to be a part.

...

More Trump

Another great Richard Gross column: A Festival of Distortion

Shoeless in Minneapolis

I told this story to an old friend in an email and then came to the astounding realization I have never shared it in my column. Thanks Dan Janal!

I was in Minneapolis a dozen times at the turn of the century, but then the division was dissolved and that was that. I did discover that many of the skyways (second-floor over-street tunnels interconnecting downtown Minneapolis buildings) close at midnight. I had gone coatless, in stocking feet to a movie three blocks from my hotel, and had to do the return trip, in sub-zero weather, on surface streets. Still, what better place to be a hamster than Minneapolis?

Remembering HHH

I deeply respected Hubert H. Humphrey, who would have made a much better president than Nixon. Actually, my cat Patrice would have made a better president than Nixon (and his dog Checkers would have made a better president than Trump). In these bleak times, take comfort in the fact that an American presidential candidate once said, “The moral test of government is how government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Refuse to Accept Results? Historical Perspective

If Trump refuses to accept defeat in November, the republic will survive intact, as it has 5 out of 6 times in the past

Stories We Never Told

In a nutshell, Stories We Never Told by Sonja Yoerg, is a taut, brilliant, twisty novel about the inside of human minds. Turns out people are complex, something she’d appreciate, being a psychologist. It has been years since a novel had me literally on the edge of my seat the way this one did. I read the last 1/3 of the book in a straight shot, because Vicki refused to tell me who did what to whom.

In the meantime, I was struck by this aside: “Maybe happiness wasn't durable and portable. maybe it was something you could have in only one place at one time of fixed duration.” It's probably like my observation about projects being on time, done right and under budget: you never get all three.

...

Thanks again, David Mamet

Another of his perfect films, Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, is brilliant. Vicki and I were enthralled. By the way, it is loosely based on a real event.